Bluegrass Instrument Roles

It's a good idea to know your cooking utensils, having the right one for the right job! It's the same in bluegrass. We each have our own instrumental shoes to fill. Here's a quick guide to each instrument's role in bluegrass. Take a look and see what your own strengths and areas of improvement may be. It's also good to see what instruments compliment each other.

The Role of Each Instrument in Bluegrass (borrowed from Jack Tuttle)

Banjo
Known for its machine gun like stream of notes that provides much of the “drive” in bluegrass, especially on fast pieces. 5th string (G) is used as a drone. Lots of chordal arpeggios surround melody notes made up of hammers, slides and pull-offs. Syncopation is very common. Breaks are occasionally played up the neck. Sometimes duplicates the mandolin offbeat by vamping closed chords during backup, but often plays backup in a similar style to lead to impart the drive. Relentlessly puts fills in vocal holes. Earl Scruggs is God. 

Mandolin  
Lots of blues influences in solos. Sometimes leads are played in a closed chordal position. Often repetitive notes are played with movement on the offbeat. Quarter and eighth note triplets are common. Tremolo is common on slow pieces. Mostly chops on the offbeat during backup, with occasional extra upstroke hits just ahead of the offbeat. Occasionally fills in the vocal holes on fast songs, but does it more often on slow songs. Most essential ideas come from Bill Monroe. 

Guitar 
Solos are optional – not regularly done until the 1960’s. Solos are often based less on a melody than the other instruments. Rhythm playing features bass runs and fills, especially G runs at every opportunity. Very dynamic strumming with surprisingly quiet normal strumming but very aggressive swells at the end of lines. Some players use highly syncopated bass runs. Tony Rice is the major influence since the 70’s. 

Fiddle
Solos are a mix of double-stops, slides and fast single noting. Traditionally it follows a melody of a song for the first three lines, yet with lots of blues imparted into it, and then departs from the melody on the last line. It fills actively in the vocal holes at times, and sometimes adds a texture right along with vocals. Frequently though, it is silent during backup, or perhaps vamps percussively on the offbeats. No one fiddler has been able to dominate historically, but Stuart Duncan does now. 

Bass 
Good groove for bluegrass usually involves fairly simple bass lines – root, 5th alternating on downbeats. Bass runs connect one chord to another. In the early days, bassists tried way too hard to walk. Now, walking is left for bouncy numbers with a swing feel, or to change the texture of a song especially during instrumental breaks. Solos are rare but do happen, and usually involve some slapping. There has been some acceptance of electric bass in bluegrass. Rock steady timing is the key for good bass playing. Howard Watts, sometimes known as  “Cedric Rainwater” is considered the first great bluegrass bass player. 

Dobro 
The least common bluegrass instrument. Generally uses lots of slides, hammers-ons and banjo-like rolls. On slow songs it tends to play lots of chordal movements. On fast songs, it tends to play very dynamic, highly punctuated phrases. Fills more actively on slow songs and often vamps on the off-beat or is silent. Josh Graves was the only guy for awhile, but in the 1970’s Jerry Douglas became the man. 

Vocals 
Singing is usually pitched in a high key to create an almost uncomfortable tension. Long held notes are often slid into from below. Most good singers today use lots of quick vocal turns. Vibrato is seldom used. Falsetto is occasionally used. Typically, verses are sung solo and choruses are harmonized with two or three parts. The most common harmony is a tenor part above the melody and a baritone part below. Gospel songs have the most elaborate vocal arrangements -- often 4 parts (an added bass part). 

Tempos for bluegrass range from slow waltzes to very fast 2/4 time. The slowest speed would be quarter note = 85 bpm (beats per minute) and the fastest I’ve ever measured (2/4) would be quarter note = 195 bpm, but this is unusual and extreme.